Saturday, May 9, 2009

Matriarchs and Elders

It’s been almost a month since I last posted to this blog, and it’s not because I haven’t been writing. However, most of the writing recently has been emails to individuals – sometimes answering a question, sometimes commenting on a current event, and sometimes offering, I hope, helpful advice.

Although I write quickly, I am a deliberate, careful sharer of my writing. I care deeply that what I say will convey the true import of my thoughts and feelings. It matters to me that I am supportive vs. dismissive or unredemptively critical of the person(s) I’m writing to or about. As my friend, Zoe, says, I hope that I am adding to the silence when I speak.

Bishop Nedi Rivera said to me a year ago as we traveled on a bus to Sunday Mass in the high country of Taiwan, “You’re an elder.” Those words have stuck with me, and I’ve pondered them often. Those words resonate with the transition I’ve been experiencing for the past nine years that my mother has lived with us and since my first grandchild was born.

In the past decade I’ve transitioned to being the matriarch of my generation, the one who is acknowledged as the keeper of the family’s metaphorical gates. The defining moment was nine years ago when I learned that my mother and the women of her generation were categorizing my widowed sister-in-law, whose husband, my youngest brother, had died six years earlier, as not an equal member of the Lee family.

The triggering event was a one-year birthday party that Herb and I hosted in California for the entire family to meet and celebrate our grandson. While the live-in paramours of my cousins were welcomed by my mother’s generation, the same courtesy was not extended to my sister-in-law because she was a daughter-in-law and not a daughter. In a traditional Chinese family, those distinctions matter in word and in deed. There are words to name each of the in-law relationships including distinguishing “on the mother’s/father’s side” and “married to the child of such-and-such birth order.”

That was the first time I spoke with the authority of a newly minted matriarch, standng up for justice and equal treatment for the mother of my mother’s youngest grandson and of my only nephew. There was push-back from the grandmothers, who objected vociferously with rationales that didn’t make any sense to me or to my brother, Jon, to whom I turned for advice and support. I finally said to the grandmothers that I would be very sad if they chose not to attend the one-year birthday party, because my sister-in-law and her partner would be attending.

The confirmation of my new matriarch role came when everyone in the family showed up for the party. The passing of the baton from one generation to the next happens not with trumpets blaring and tympanis clashing, but with the quiet acquiescence of old ladies who murmur approval upon tasting the family’s favorite dish cooked by a daughter from her own new recipe.

I cannot say that I aspired to be an elder, and I certainly thought that elderhood came to those much older than I, who just turned 60. The nuances of being an elder are subtle. People pay attention to what you say, even quoting you, and you become keenly aware of the responsibility to speak with integrity. You notice that your praise and acknowledgment seem to be meaningful to others, and you become more alert to opportunities to offer thanks and specific compliments. People want you to carry their hurts and needs to the halls of decision-making, and you become more intentional in your listening, inquiring more widely. You cannot be an elder without living into these responsibilities.

One of the most profound nuances for me is my need to be grounded constantly in the loving arms of God and my community. People often comment that they don’t know how I do as much as I do. While I do a lot, I also spend enormous amounts of time in contemplation and prayer, which are the fuel that give me the energy and stamina to attend to the work to which I am called. Another source of succour and renewal is the time spent with friends and colleagues in deep conversation where I try to be open and vulnerable about what is happening in my life and what I am thinking.

I pray for the grace to continue to add to the silence and to be worthy of the respect and trust given to me in my elder’s role.


Laurie Gudim and Rosean Amaral said...

A very humble "hats off" to you, my friend, as you go about your justice work. I am SO glad you are an elder.


Dear Laurie,

You are one of those dear friends and colleagues whose heart and words light my path. I am blessed to have you in my life.